Plant and nut-based beverages that market and label themselves as "milk" have steadily gotten more room on the grocery store shelves over the years, packed next to the traditional dairy products that have seen demand shrink over time.
Now, one Virginia lawmaker wants to make sure consumers don't confuse the two.
Del. Barry Knight, R-Virginia Beach, filed a bill Monday that would define milk as coming from a "healthy hooved mammal" such as a cow, goat, yak or reindeer. If it passes, the Board of Agriculture and Consumer Services would have to come up with a plan to ban the sale of any imposter liquid branded as milk. That would include drinks like almond milk, soy milk and oat milk.
Knight, who's a farmer and sits on the House agriculture committee, calls himself a traditionalist when it comes to milk -- the kind you get from a cow. And he's worried about the shrinking number of Virginia dairy farms (an average of 26 per year have closed over the last five years, according to the Virginia Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services).
"Some people maybe are capitalizing on the good name of milk, which most people associate with dairy milk," he said in a phone interview Friday. "If you are a plant-based fluid, let's get you a different definition."
It's a fight the dairy industry and the plant-based foods industry have been having for at least 10 years as dairy milk sales and consumption have declined, said Whitney Perkins, a commodity specialist with the Virginia Farm Bureau.
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration defines milk as coming from cows, but the FDA hasn't enforced this for product labeling.
"This is trying to make sure the identity of milk is protected and that plant and nut-based beverages are not being misrepresented in claiming milk in their title," Perkins said.
Knight's definition is nearly identical to a North Carolina bill that passed last year with one condition -- that it not go into effect until 11 other states pass a similar labeling requirement into law, to alleviate interstate commerce concerns. It requires North Carolina's agriculture department to enforce the FDA's definition of milk to stop the sale of mislabeled products within 90 days.
A legislative assistant with the bill's sponsor, North Carolina Sen. Brent Jackson, said in an email the condition included other states heavily reliant on agriculture -- including Virginia -- "to create consistency and cost-effectiveness within the region."
A similar bill is also making its way through the Wisconsin legislature and Congress.
The cleverly named DAIRY PRIDE Act -- Defending Against Imitations and Replacements of Yogurt, milk and cheese to Promote Regular Intake of Dairy Every Day Act -- filed by a pair of U.S. lawmakers would require companies that make non-dairy products from nuts, seeds, plants or algae to stop labeling their products with dairy terms like milk, yogurt or cheese.
Michele Simon, executive director of the Plant Based Foods Association, called the federal legislation "mean-spirited" in a statement and said it wo uld harm growing plant-based food companies and cause disruptions in the market.
Michael Robbins, a spokesman with the three-year-old association, called Knight's bill unnecessary and anti-competitive.
"No one in the marketplace is confused about what they are purchasing. Consumers in fact are purposely seeking out plant-based food options," he said.
He said plant-based milk makes up 15% of the milk market, and 40% of households have both plant-based and dairy milk in their refrigerators.
The dairy industry argues companies that make drinks like almond milk and hemp milk are deceptively trying to pass off their products as being the same as dairy milk with the same nutritional value, but Robbins said that's far from true.
"They use the word milk because that's a term consumers understand," he said of companies like Silk and Almond Breeze. "It's very important that people understand it's not from an animal."
The association estimates plant-based milk purchases have grown 6% in the past year and brought in $1.9 billion.
Dairy milk prices have been declining as competition from plant-based alternatives have increased and consumers have been drinking less dairy. The U.S. Department of Agriculture estimates the number of pounds of fluid milk consumed per person has declined or remained the same each year in the U.S. since 1985.
The USDA still recommends consuming fat-free or low-fat dairy, including milk, yogurt and cheese, on a daily basis, or fortified soy beverages, which the department says are similar to milk-based products in their nutrient composition -- mainly, calcium, Vitamin A and vitamin D.
"Other products sold as 'milks' but made from plants (e.g., almond, rice, coconut, and hemp 'milks') may contain calcium and be consumed as a source of calcium, but they are not included as part of their dairy group because their overall nutritional content is not similar to dairy milk and fortified soy beverages," the 2015-2020 USDA dietary guidelines said.
The FDA solicited feedback a year ago on how to label plant-based products that currently market themselves as "milk," saying it had concerns about the products leading consumers to believe they shared the same nutritional components as dairy products.
Perkins from the Virginia Farm Bureau said a similar fight is brewing over the term "meat" as products from plant-based companies like Impossible Foods and Beyond Meat hit the market.
Knight said his bill is still in its infancy and could be amended, but believes strongly that only dairy milk should claim the name.
"If you surveyed 100 people and asked them, 'Where does milk come from?' I bet almost all of them would say, 'Milk comes from a cow,' not 'Milk comes from an almond,'" he said.